Shyamalan talks about AIRBENDER's "racebending" issues
The Last Airbender
director M. Night Shyamalan gave an interview to io9
that included a discussion of the controversy of the film's casting choices, with all three main protagonists, who are essentially Asian and Inuit in the animated series, being portrayed by Caucasian actors in the film. This has been the main thing upsetting me about the film, and Shyamalan's comments, assuming they're truthful, are very reassuring:
When we were casting, I was like, "I don't care who walks through my door, whoever is best for the part. I'm going to figure it out like a chessgame." Ideally we separate the nations ethnically — ideally. I didn't know how or what it was going to be. And it was so fluid. For example if you found a great brother, [but] he didn't go with my favorite Katara, then we couldn't use him. Theoretical things like that. There was an Ang that we really loved, but he was like 5'10." There's all kinds of issues that come to the table physically. And I had a board of all the people that I was considering, the seven or eight. There was, at one time, a Chinese Sokka and Katara, and they were over here. One of them was a better actor than the other, and so I was gathering my pros and cons.
I was without an agenda, and just letting it come to the table. Noah is a photo double from the cartoon. He is spot on. I didn't know their backgrounds, and to me Noah had a slightly mixed quality to him. So I cast the Airbenders as all mixed-race. So when you see the monks, they are all mixed. And it kind of goes with the nomadic culture and the idea that over the years, all nationalities came together.
The Fire Nation was the most complicated. I kept switching who was playing Zuko. It was such a complicated and drawn out thing, about practical matters. But the first person that I was considering casting for Zuko was Ecuadorian. So I started thinking that way. Then when that person couldn't do it, the next person who came in was much more Caucasian. And then we had to switch everything around.
The Earth Nation was always the issue as well, because the second movie is so dominated by that group, and it will represent most of the movie. But it has a small, small part in the first movie. So that was important in thinking about it in the long term. Then Dev [Patel] came into the picture, he was really early on. He had auditioned for me in London. He was a sweet guy, but he did such a great reading...I always go for the actor.
That's always been my lean. I have hopes of what I want them to be, my hope was that the movie would be incredibly diverse. That when we look back on all three movies that it is one of the most diverse movies of all times. And that is the case when you watch the movies. And it's not an agenda, like when you see a picture of a kid's school and they have everybody on the swings. It's not like that. This nation has this ethnicity and when we go deep into that culture, we will see more there. Dev ended up being my choice for Zuko, and I looked for an Uncle that could be in that realm, for a moment I thought about Ben Kingsley. But Shaun Toub, I just loved him in Iron Man. I thought this takes us into a Mediterranean kind of Arab and Indian world, and I can go as far as that, that will be the breadth of the Fire Nation, that kind of look.
For me, Nicola [Peltz, who plays Katara] had a lot of Russian qualities, European and Russian qualities. So that was the direction we went there. Whoever I ended up with, I went that was their nationality. Suki was Jessica [Andres] who is a mix of Filipino. And now the Earth Kingdom is all Asian so Toph will have to be Asian. Suddenly I was looking at the board and I thought, this works for me, because everything was represented.
And there's a section of the Earth Kingdom that's African American. Because it's such a big country and land I thought you could have some diversity in there as they travel through the cities. So more so than the show, it will have a much more diverse ethnic backgrounds to it. It's not an agenda for me, but it's something I'm super proud of. That when my kids or any kids look at it they will see themselves.
The one thing that still has me unsure, and the thing I considered a "smoking gun" of sorts before, was that the casting call for the four leads (including Zuko) didn't say "Seeking all ethnicities," as is usually the case when casting is colorblind, but reportedly said "Caucasian or other ethnicities." So it seems like there were at least some people involved in the process who favored Caucasian actors over the alternatives. But given that Shyamalan is Indian himself, it does seem unlikely that he'd be one of those people. And at least they did look at actors of all types. And I guess it is better to start with finding the best actors and let the ethnicities of the nations follow.
So I guess I can learn to live with this. Noah Ringer does have a "mixed" look to him, as MNS said, and if the rest of the Airbenders (in flashbacks, I assume) are cast accordingly, that's good. If we've got mixed-ethnic Air Nomads, South/Southwest Asian Fire Nation, and East Asian (and sometimes African) Earth Kingdom, I guess I can live with the Water Tribe being based on Russians or Northern Europeans. And while the first movie does unfortunately come off being dominated by white heroes going up against nonwhite villains, that will balance out in the sequels, with Toph joining the team, Suki having an increased role, and Zuko and Iroh shifting allegiances.
Shyamalan says some other things that are reassuring:
The first outline I made of the movie I bought Mike and Bryan to my house and said, "I have an outline of the movie, what do you think?" And they said, "This is like 10 hours long. You have to cut stuff." And I thought, "I can't. I love everything."
I really enjoyed working on the movie which is the main thing — I think you'll feel that. It's not work to me. Analyzing it and getting the balance right and you know, the Miyazaki influence, oh that's the other thing, the Miyazaki influence of the show. Do you guys know who Miyazaki is? Yeah, he's like my God, so... that's it, he's Michael Jordan to me. You know, I met him last year. Luckily for me, he hasn't seen any of my movies.
Shyamalan: And he was just animating and I was like, "Man, this is the greatest." And just that Mike and Bryan were so influenced by Miyazaki, and I'm so influenced by Miyazaki, that's just, trying to get that tonality to reach the American audience that kind of... water doesn't just mean water, it has meaning and something behind it, it's metaphorical. And I think in different cultures, it's easier to accept that.
It sounds like he really is a fan of the show, that his kids love it and he's trying to make it worthy of them. And if he's trying to make it feel like a Miyazaki film, that's very encouraging (anything but making it feel like a Shyamalan film).
I'm still not entirely convinced Shyamalan has the chops to pull off something so different from his usual oeuvre. But I'm more reassured that he gets it and is trying to do right by it. And I'm a lot more willing now to accept the casting choices, at least in principle. (Though I'm wondering why it took MNS so long to make these statements, given how much of a storm the casting has stirred up in the fan community over the past few months.)